These days, top clubs battle it out for the right to be big in Japan and tap into the football boom in the Far East. But when Arsenal flew out for a triple-header against the Japanese national team in May 1968 they were breaking very new ground for a Western professional club.
The Japanese FA actually first tried to invite Arsenal over in 1965, the year that the Japan Football League was launched. Then, in autumn 1967, the game enjoyed a huge surge in popularity, when the national team qualified for the following year’s Olympic Games in Mexico.
The Arsenal tour was arranged as part of a push to help promote the game and prepare the national team for their Olympic hurdle in Mexico, where Japan went on to claim the bronze medal.
"In those days, long haul really was long haul. We flew to Tokyo via New York, so we were severely jet-lagged by the time we arrived and ended up sleeping for the best part of 24 hours"
One of the 17 Arsenal players on the tour was David Court, now the assistant head of the Club’s academy. He recalls that while Arsenal were the first English professional club to tour Japan, a local non-league side had been paving the way for many years.
“Middlesex Wanderers had actually gone out before us [in 1967] and had drawn really big crowds,” he said.
Founded in 1905, the Wanderers are an amalgam of some of the top amateur English sides, who tour the world on an annual basis, and have since been back to Japan on eight occasions.
“They generated a lot of good will towards English football and that helped prepare the ground for our tour,” recalls Court.
Arsenal’s arrival generated a huge buzz of expectation. Just a month earlier, Japanese TV audiences had been given their first regular dose of English football, thanks to a new programme called Diamond Soccer, which rebroadcast match highlights from Match of the Day.
The final curtain had barely come down on the league programme when Arsenal’s trailblazers, led by manager Bertie Mee, and accompanied by club director Sir Guy Bracewell Smith and secretary William Wall, embarked on a marathon flight to Tokyo.
“In those days, long haul really was long haul,” remembers Court, who played in all three games. “We flew to Tokyo via New York, so we were severely jet-lagged by the time we arrived and ended up sleeping for the best part of 24 hours.”
On the evening of May 23, 1968, some 58,000 crammed into Tokyo’s Kokuritsu Stadium for the first game. Within 13 seconds of kick-off, Bobby Gould fired Arsenal into the lead, but any suggestions that a rout was in the offing soon subsided.
“The Japanese were no pushovers, and their performances in the Olympics later that year proved as much,” recalls Court. “They had a player called [Kunishige] Kamamoto who was their star striker, and another [the winger, Yasuhiko Okudera], who ended up going to play in the Bundesliga.”
But back to the match: the hosts equalised before half-time leaving the local crowed on tenterhooks. In the second half, though, Arsenal scored twice more without reply, as Gould grabbed a second and Terry Neill made it safe to secure a 3-1 victory for the tourists.
Among the crowd that night was teenager Hiroyuki Kurano. It was love at first sight. Smitten by Arsenal, the teenager went to watch them train every day during their time in Tokyo and managed to come away with a set of player autographs.
"Some of the traditions were very different - for example the way they gave more importance to age than to seniority of position. I remember that Bert Owen, the Arsenal physio, would always get served his dinner before anyone else by virtue of the fact that he was the oldest member of the party"
“It was my first real step into the world of Arsenal and English football,” recalls ‘Kura-San’, now in his early sixties. “The tour generated such excitement that it was chaos before the games in Tokyo. The queues for tickets were huge and demand couldn’t be satisfied; and they didn’t print enough programmes.”
Two days after the first game, Arsenal travelled out of the capital to the provincial town of Fukuoka, the venue for their second game. “Fukuoka was basically an American airbase. The stadium and the crowd were much smaller than in Tokyo, and the pitch was pretty much amateur level, all a bit patchy,” says Court.
Perhaps the pitch acted as a leveller, or a mixture of fatigue and jet-lag were still taking their toll on the visitors, but this time the game was an even closer-fought affair, with Arsenal squeezing out a 1-0 victory thanks to a goal from substitute David Simmons, who found the net with a header from a Frank McLintock corner.
There was another two-day interval before the third and final match, which took place on May 29 back in Tokyo, hours before Manchester United defeated Benfica in the European Cup final at Wembley. This time interest among the Japanese public was even greater.
“Because the score in the second game was so close, that spurred the interest in the second Tokyo game,” says Court. “And for the final game, in front of such a big crowd [68,000], we really tried to turn on the style.”
And unlike the first two games, Arsenal ran out clear winners, with McLintock notching a double to pave the way for a 4-0 victory.
On the way back to England, Arsenal rounded off a hugely successful tour with a stop off in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, where they defeated an Asia All Stars team 6-2.
In between games, the Arsenal players had a chance to glimpse into a completely unfamiliar culture. “It was a very interesting experience,” says Court. “The Japanese came across as very deep people, and very reserved. Some of the traditions were very different - for example the way they gave more importance to age than to seniority of position. I remember that Bert Owen, the Arsenal physio, would always get served his dinner before anyone else by virtue of the fact that he was the oldest member of the party.”
And as Court recalls, the squad threw themselves into aspects of Japanese culture.
“We got quite into the sumo wrestling when we were there. We went to a basho in Tokyo and at the end we were invited back into the dressing room to meet the wrestlers. None of them really spoke any English, and obviously we didn’t speak any Japanese, but there was still this code of respect between sports professionals so we all got on very well.
“Then this one chap who was a retired sumo wrestler invited us to go and have dinner at a restaurant he owned. We ended up messing around, having a go at the sumo wrestling ourselves. I have a vivid memory of Frank McLintock, who was a stick of a man back then, being twirled around in the air above the head of this 20-stone sumo wrestler.
At one point, McLintock and his team-mates endured a bit of a shake-up on the football pitch as well. “During one of the games, there was a mild earth tremor,” recalls Court. “We all felt it at the time, but we didn’t have any idea what it was until someone told us afterwards. It was nothing serious – apparently it’s a fairly common occurrence in Japan, but it was certainly an odd feeling.
"During one of the games, there was a mild earth tremor. We all felt it at the time, but we didn’t have any idea what it was until someone told us afterwards"
“All in all, we were very well looked after in Japan. We had an English chap called Chris McDonald, who was based out in Tokyo and who spoke fluent Japanese, looking after us. A lot of us got very friendly with him and later, when he got married to a Japanese woman, many of the team went to the wedding.”
Talking of Anglo-Japanese romances, Kura-san’s five-decade love affair with Arsenal is still going strong.
“Looking back, it’s hard to believe that we got to see so many of the players who went on to win the Double a few seasons later!” he recalls. “And in 1971, two weeks after Arsenal had won the league at White Hart Lane, Spurs themselves came to Japan and seemed like a very strong team. I remember wondering at the time just how much stronger Arsenal must have been.”
In the modern era, Arsenal boast various connections with Japan. It was in the J-League that Arsene Wenger first forged a working relationship with his head coach, Boro Primorac. And the Arsenal manager later returned to his old oriental stamping ground to secure the loan signing of midfielder Junichi Inamoto, who spent a season at Highbury before moving on to Fulham and then West Brom.
During Inamoto’s spell at Highbury, Japanese interest in the Club was at its peak, with Japanese reporters a regular presence on press days at the training ground. And back in Japan, they even showed Arsenal reserve games whenever Ina was playing.
The 2002 World Cup, which Japan co-hosted with South Korea, provided the clearest sign yet of the progress Japanese football has made in recent times, both in terms of quality on the pitch, and interest levels off it.
Since Hidetoshi Nakata, the main pin-up boy of Japanese football, made his groundbreaking move to Perugia in 1998, a steadily increasing number of Japanese footballers have moved to Europe.
ARSENAL IN JAPAN, 1968
May 23, Tokyo; Attendance: 58,000
Japan 1-3 Arsenal (Gould 2, Neil)
Team: Wilson, Rice, Neill, Simpson, Storey, McLintock, Court, Radford, Graham, Gould, Armstrong
May 26, Fukuoka; Attendance: 13,000
Japan 0-1 Arsenal (Simmons)
Team: Wilson (Furnell), Rice, Simpson, Court, Storey, McLintock (Woodward), Jenkins, Radford, Graham (Simmons), Gould, Armstrong
May 29, Tokyo; Attendance: 68,000
Japan 0-4 Arsenal (Jenkins, McLintock 2, Simmons)
Team: Wilson (Furnell), Storey (Rice) (Nelson), Neill, Simpson, McNab, McLintock (Woodward), Court, Radford, Jenkins, Gould (Simmons), Armstrong
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